The Claddagh Ring
The Mantle, No. 13 (1970), pp 9—13
by Father George Quinn, Moycullen
The Claddagh Ring is so called because it originated in the Claddagh, Galway, and was constantly used in this community down through the ages. It is unique in this, that it is the only ring, probably in the world, of a distinctive design used by a small community exclusively for over 400 years. The Claddagh means a village situated near the seashore. In Galway, it was outside the walls and separated by the River Corrib from the City. It was irregularly built, but very extensive and intersected into several streets. According to tradition, it was the first residence of the Celtic settlers in this area. They were exclusive in being always Catholics and strangers were never allowed to settle amongst them. From time immemorial, it was ruled by one of their own body periodically elected, who was called the King. He administered their laws and settled all their disputes according to age—old customs. His only distinguishing mark was a white flag at his masthead when the fishing fleet put out to sea. The sole occupation of this colony was fishing. In fact, they were not allowed to use spade or hoe. The municipality recompensed them for their fish, in giving them sustenance for all their needs. The ring was used by these people as a marriage ring and even down to the present day the ring amongst them has special age—old customs. For instance, it is not right for a Claddagh person to buy a ring, they must obtain it as a gift. If married, the crown must be put on nearest the nail. If unmarried, the heart is being presented; it is free to be captured, so the crown is worn nearest the knuckle. It is still a popular ring amongst these people.
The origin of this ring is lost in antiquity. Some say it is of Celtic design, but the old Celtic rings, although a circle, were not joined, thus enabling them to fit any finger. Others think that as at one time Galway carried on a large and prosperous wine trade with Spain and made pilgrimages to the Shrine of Compostella, that gold, silver and amber came to Galway from Spain and the design may have also come from there. A somewhat similar design was procured in Brittany. It is also possible that it could be fashioned by sailors as many handmade rings were in use and it could easily have been brought from Galway as there was great trade between Galway and St. Malo. For instance Irish state papers 1548 tells us of an "arrival of a big ship at Kinsale from St. Malo, going to Galway with wine and to take fifteen lasts of hides from there."
But we think that the distinctive design which has always been used in the Claddagh has possibly two alleged sources, both attached to the Joyce family, who were one of the famous "Tribes of Galway". Margaret Joyce, surnamed "Margaret of the Bridges" from the great number that she built, first married Domingo de Rona, a wealthy Spanish merchant who traded to Galway, where he fell in love and married her. Soon after departing for Spain, he died there and left her his immense property. She subsequently married Oliver Og Ffrench, Mayor of Galway 1596. During his absence on a voyage, she built most of the bridges of Connacht at her own expense. One day, sitting before the workmen, an eagle flying overhead dropped a gold ring into her lap. This was adorned with a brilliant stone, the nature of which no lapidary could ever discover. It was preserved by her family in 1661, according to Hardiman, and was considered as a providential reward for her good works and charity. The motif of this ring could be the original Claddagh Ring.
The story of Richard Joyce is more factual. Hardiman gives the following account: "Several individuals of this name have long felt grateful to the memory of William III in 1689, from the following circumstances. On the accession of that monarch to the throne of England, one of the first acts of his reign was to send an ambassador to Algiers, to demand the immediate release of all the British subjects detained there in slavery. The Day and Council, intimidated, reluctantly complied with this demand. Among those released was a young man of the name of Joyce, a native of Galway, who, fourteen years before, was captured on his passage to the West Indies by an Algerian corsair. On his arrival at Algiers, he was purchased by a wealthy Turk, who followed the profession of a goldsmith, and who, observing his slave, Joyce, to be tractable and ingenious, instructed him in his trade, in which he speedily became an adept. The Moor, as soon as he heard of his release, offered him, in case he should remain, his only daughter in marriage, and with her half of the property; but all those, with other tempting and advantageous proposals, Joyce resolutely declined. On his return to Galway, he married and followed the business of a goldsmith with considerable success, having acquired a handsome independence, he was enabled to purchase the estate of Rahoon (which lies about two miles west of the town), from Colonel Whaley, one of Cromwell's old officers. Joyce, having no son, bequeathed his property to his three daughters; two of whom only were married; one to Andrew Roe French, ancestor to the late Andrew French of Rahoon, to whom, in addition to their son, the unmarried sister left her third; the second daughter was married to the ancestor of the later Martin Lynch, a banker, who in her own right inherited the remainder of the estate. Some of Joyce's silver work, stamped with his mark and the initials of his name, are still remaining." The Prendergast Chalice at St. Patrick's College, Thurles; The Skerrett Chalice and Paten collection of C. I. Jackson, F.S.A., and various others, are stamped with his mark — an anchor exemplifying Hope, and initials R.I. Although we have no old Claddagh ring stamped with his name, as these could possibly be worn out, we think that to this man also is attributed the Claddagh Ring. Some held he brought the design from Algiers as there are many old Egyptian rings with a somewhat like design, but he could also have obtained the unique and original design from his kinswoman, Margaret of the Bridges.
The ring consists of two hands holding between them or presenting a heart and over the heart is a design like a crown, or a fleur de lis, or ducal coronets. The phrase or posey that usually accompanies the ring is: Let Love and Friendship Reign. Among all peoples the union of heart and hands falls under three headings. Sentimental, i.e., love and friendship — "Marriage be happiest bond of Love might be, if hand were only joined where hearts agree", or "Here's my hand, and mine with my heart in it" (Shakespeare). Religious — St. Bernard often used the phrase: "He who prays and labours lifts his heart to God with his hands"; Patriotic — "The Union of hearts, the union of hands, and the flag of our union for ever" exemplified the adage, "United we stand, divided we fall"; or "Stout of Heart and Stout of Hand" also exemplifies freedom, as amongst the Romans a ring was always forbidden to slaves.
We give seven slight variations of design. The first has the heart portrayed very slenderly. This ring is over two hundred years old. The next, No. 2, the heart broadens and the fingers clasp the heart more firmly. The third is that of George Robinson, an English goldsmith who settled in Galway and registered his name in the Goldsmith's Hall, Dublin, 1784, as all goldsmiths, by an Act of Parliament, were compelled to do this. He stamped his rings, G. R., but we know that the Claddagh ring was in existence long before this time. He was followed in Galway by Andrew Robinson. The fourth ring is the Country Claddagh Ring, which was used outside the Claddagh, and extended to the Aran Isles, Connemara and the Joyce country. These were heavier made, especially the shaft. Next is a T.D. ring, that is, Thomas Dillon, who was established in Galway since 1750, and whose trade name and establishment is still in Galway. The fifth ring is a modern T.D. and the sixth an old T.D. ring, sand blasted and hand punched. The seventh is a T.D. made at the end of the last century for Mr. Grealy of Galway and now owned by Mrs. W. B. Allen. The heart is of stone, a purpley red amethyst, with two diamonds in the crown, very beautifully executed. There must have been many more like this made in the past. This could possibly be the design which was possessed by Margaret of the Bridges and handed down to her family.
There were many other goldsmiths also in Galway down through the years. On the Galway Chalice were the initials M.F., which would mean that French, a nephew of Richard Joyce, worked with him and carried on the goldsmith's trade after his death. Mr. Dudley Westropp gives us a list of goldsmiths, in Galway: Austin French, Martin Lain, Laurence Coleman, in 1784; Frank Dowling and Michael O'Meara in 1785; William Leapham in 1786, and James Kelly in 1799. There were many other goldsmiths also who made this ring but left it unstamped because they used gold guineas and would have to account for their sources of gold and consequently did not stamp them.
The Galway Archaeological Journal 1905, tells us that most of the old Claddagh Rings were lost during the famine 1846—47. These were pawned with a Mr. Kirwan on which he had advanced cash to the extent of $500. As most of these people emigrated, seeing no prospect of the rings ever being redeemed, he realized his money by selling them as old gold to be broken up and consigned to the melting pot. Hence, heirlooms and priceless old rings were lost forever. So many of the Claddagh population emigrated to Boston at that time that to the present day there exists there a colony called The Claddagh.
The ring became popular outside the Claddagh about the middle of the last century, especially as it was claimed to be the only ring ever made in Ireland to be worn by Queen Victoria — she probably purchased one for Albert also — and later Edward VII. It is now daily growing in popularity because of its distinctive design, its peculiar and unique history and its close association with the ancient Claddagh of Galway.